Acclaimed director Sherif Arafa, of Mafia (2002), El-Nazer (2000) and El-Erhab Wel Kabab (1992), hauled in a mighty team of actors for the sequel to his successful 2007 feature El-Gezira (The Island). El-Gezira 2 opened in Egyptian theatres 1 October and has since grossed a whopping LE26.4 million ($3.7 million).
Viewers lined up for El-Gezira 2 for two main reasons: first, the cast is led by Ahmed El-Saqqa, Hend Sabry, Khaled Saleh and Khaled El-Sawy; and second, because the script was written by the Diab trio — a team of writers that includes Mohamed Diab, who penned and directed 678 (2010).
From realism to caricature
The first part of El-Gezira, which included veteran actor Mahmoud Yassin, peered into the formidable relationship between drug lords in Upper Egypt and the interior ministry in the capital. Viewers learn that the island oversees opium sales and smuggling of weapons with occasional consent from the authorities. Nurtured by government alienation and grim clannish customs, the island fosters its own rules where power and kinship have divorced people from their humanity.
The island is home to three main families: El-Najayha, El-Rahayma and El-Hifnis. Following the arrest of Mansour El-Hifni (Ahmed El-Saqqa) in part one, El-Najayha, headed by Mansour’s former lover Karima (Hend Sabry), takes on the leadership of the island. El-Gezira 2 takes place 10 years later, on the eve of 25 January 2011. The movie opens with Mansour on the floor of his jail cell, five days before scheduled execution.
As such, Arafa mirrors sights and phrases closely tied to the early days of 2011. Though the subsequent scenes are framed by actual events, the director plunges into a carousel of exaggerations. In one scene, a crowd of bearded men perched on bulldozers and pick-up trucks break through the cement walls that fence off the prison in which Mansour is held. The lack of realism in some of the action that ensues seems more fitting for parody, which works against the essence of the film, bringing to question Arafa’s techniques.
Besides the bizarre sight of bulldozers storming through the prison wall, the series of fight scenes that take place during the prison break felt like a string of amateurish kicks, always ending abruptly. Arafa opted for shaky shots throughout, a trite technique that could have benefited from real, trained fighting.
The action of the movie culminates in a scene where thousands of members of El-Rahala family headed by Jaafar (Khaled Saleh), who unambiguously represents the Muslim Brotherhood, rush down a sandy mountain, waving their weapons in the air and swarming in a dusty haze, almost acrobatically. They set out to fight a newly formed coalition between residents of the island and defected members of the interior ministry in a scene reminiscent of 7th century battles.
Upper Egypt is notorious for its abundance of guns, but Arafa’s overstating this reality pushes the production into a semi-caricaturist nook.
Meanwhile, throughout the film, five marriage proposals are spoken about, none out of love but all as part of sealing deals to ascend in power. In doing so, Arafa attempts to set the scene to explore female subordination in Egypt.
However, through his protagonist Karima, Arafa has failed to challenge societal convictions regarding the role of women, particularly on the island. Karima, played by Sabry, is leading a male-dominated community, and as such her character presented a good opportunity to respond to what is traditionally expected of women on the island.
Throughout the film, however, 40-year-old Karima is constantly reminded of her spinsterhood. She is referred to as “a dead tree” at least twice, to which her reaction is feeble, making it difficult to empathise with her or loathe the eons old perception of single women. Although Upper Egyptian women are expected to enter matrimony early, the writers far overuse the metaphor.
What the writers have achieved is garnering laughter from the audience. Giggles from the crowd also followed a range of remarks that carried anti-revolutionary connotations. An example is a conversation between two police officers, one grieving the loss of his family to a terrorist act. “All you’re missing is a wig and a scarf and you’ll be a revolutionary,” said the officer from behind the desk to his grieving colleague.
Between Jaafar, who resembles the typical stereotyped Muslim Brotherhood member, and Roshdy, the lead police officer, the script is loaded with Islamic preaching and jests about how the revolution has forever changed the status of the interior ministry in dialogue packed with clichés.
Whilst creating an imaginary community, there is certainly responsibility that comes with that. With an immense budget, such as the one spent on El-Gezira 2, the question that looms large is what principles are being put forth to the hundreds of thousands of the successful commercial scores' viewers.
In many ways, the film has put forth the idea that rulers can only rise from one of three groups: terrorists, corrupt government officials, or drug lords. The scriptwriters create a situation in which citizens find themselves between a rock and a hard place. In the case of the island, it cements oppression and dictatorship.
Evidently, the realities emulated through El-Gezira 2 are immune to the possibility of change, or the challenge of finding alternate solutions. The film is soaked in prosaic techniques and themes, confirming that as a commercial production it remains reluctant to offer anything to stimulate the minds of its viewers.
According to elcinema.com, El-Gezira 2 will be released in the US on 31 October.